Security

Activation Lock may be most important iOS 7 feature

Sep. 18, 2013 at 2:31 PM ET

New Find My iPhone features in iOS 7
Apple
"Even after a remote erase, Find My iPhone can continue to display a message with your phone number on the Lock screen," says Apple. And "if you get your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch back after you’ve already erased it, just enter your Apple ID and password to reactivate it."

If you're upgrading to iOS 7, you're about to get more new features than you've seen since the birth of iOS. It should be called iOS 7000. But beyond the cool new design and streamlined feel, there's a feature that may make Apple iPhone theft an unprofitable, or at least unpalatable, activity for evil-doers. I'm talking about the Find My iPhone Activation Lock.

Past iPhones let you remotely trace, lock, wipe or even send messages to your stolen phone, in hopes of recovering your device, or at least erasing your info so others couldn't steal your identity. Now, Activation Lock really ties your device to your iCloud account, in a way that will make it very hard for bad guys to prep it for resale. As Apple explains in a few explanatory bullet points, in the fact sheet that appears when you update your device:

  • "Turning off Find My iPhone, erasing your device, reactivation, and signing out of iCloud requires your Apple ID password"
  • "A custom message can be displayed on your device even after a remote erase"

So any meddling will require your password, and you can feel free to wipe your phone and still send angry messages. The top lawyers from New York and San Francisco have sounded off on this new feature, calling it "an important first step towards ending the global epidemic of smartphone theft."

And although the attention in recent weeks has been on Apple's other security feature, the fingerprint-scanning Touch ID, the joint statement, issued by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, makes it clear that Activation Lock is more important overall, at least for now:

In the months ahead, it is our hope that Activation Lock will prove to be an effective deterrent to theft, and that the widespread use of this new system will end the victimization of iPhone users, as thieves learn that the devices have no value on the secondary market. We are particularly pleased that — because Activation Lock is a feature associated with Apple's new operating system as opposed to a new device — it will be available to consumers with older phone models who download the free upgrade.

Of course, it's worth noting that the feature only matters if you use it, and that means signing up for iCloud and activating Find My iPhone, things that are, ironically, not favored by some security-conscious people. Perhaps this means you'll have to identify the lesser of two nemeses: common thieves or government agents.

If Activation Lock does manage to be used widely, perhaps, a year from now, the act of stealing i-products will be known by a less breezy nickname than "Apple picking."

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.

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